02 September 2017

Musical Fragmentation


An hour of my Saturday afternoon was given over to attending a concert of new music by student composers.  It is cause for celebration that student composers in Singapore not only have a forum in which they can try out their ideas and begin to have their embryonic creative voices heard in public, but also that there is an audience – and not just an audience of their peers and professors – who are willing to come, hear and react to what they hear. 
Could a Grade 5 Candidate know what to do with this?

It is also a cause for celebration that their youthful experiments in musical creativity are taken seriously by performers, and that those performers are not just committed to playing these works, but are willing to have their techniques stretched in order to do so.  The two-way traffic between composer and performer is vital for the evolution of new music, and this concert (and the many others like it) offered a matchless opportunity for productive interaction and collaborative learning.

Hopefully, the students whose works were aired in this concert will have learnt from the experience.  They will have heard what their ideas sounded like in reality (and the huge advantage of having recording skills on hand means that they can listen to them over and over again) and will have realised what works and what does not.  They will recognise things which can be developed on, and things which are best discarded, and while it is in the nature of the beast that there were far more of the latter than the former, there were still some very positive things thrown up in the concert which will warrant further investigation.

It troubles me slightly that every single work aired in the concert delved into the realms of what we once called the “Avant-Garde” – the deliberate movement away from the conventions of tonality, rhythm, harmony and instrumental colour – and strove (often far too hard) to find new ways of getting sounds from traditional instruments.  Interestingly, while bassoons were clicked, cello spikes played, flutes overblown, horns rasped and clarinets aired soundlessly, nobody thought to move away from the convention of pianists sitting at the piano and playing the notes (whatever happened to that 1950s fad for prepared pianos?).  As a result the piano all too often acted as a millstone around the composers’ necks, dragging their ideas of experimentation down to the level of the conventional chromatic vocabulary of the piano keyboard.  I did wonder why none of these young composers felt there was any mileage left in making use of tonal idioms and conventional instruments; after all, Minimalism was arguably one of the most successful and popular cults in late 20th-century music, and that positively celebrated tonality and conventionality of timbre.  Perhaps getting anything new and original out of tonality is asking too much skill and thought from a 21st century student.
How much longer will players trained to deal with graphic
scores be able to handle this? 

And with that I realised that there is a yawning chasm between what our students are being encouraged to do as composers and what the ultimate consumers of that music – the concert-going public – are exposed to.  It has become so wide that I wonder, even, if it stall can be bridged.

The thought occurred because last night was spent in the jolly company of some of my former examiner colleagues, presently in Singapore to examine some of the 60,000 plus children here who, every year, do their graded exams.  Among our party last night were a few new examiners who were making their maiden examining trips to Singapore.  “It’s wonderful”, one of them told me.  “So much music going on.  So many fantastic young players.  Classical music is certainly alive and well here!” 

Notwithstanding the argument that 60,000 plus young people undertaking the ultimately sterile activity of playing three short pieces, a handful of scales, doing some sight-reading and a few aural tests, and getting a sole listener to award a largely random mark determined by factors other than musical ability, is hardly indicative of a healthy musical climate, it was obvious to me that there is a very fundamental disconnect with what these examiners hear a couple of dozen times a day, and what the couple of dozen student composers and performers were doing this afternoon.

I worry deeply about the future of music.  I believe that its very ubiquitousness has devalued musical currency to the point where nobody really notices it any more.  But I worry also that music is rapidly fragmenting itself, and deliberately shutting itself off from reality.  While academic composers try to push boundaries and go where no musician has ever gone before, the vast mass of music teachers and their students flock in their droves to the familiar and predictable.  The dread of the old, as exemplified by today’s students, comes into conflict with the dread of the new, as shown by the obsession with traditional graded exams, and I do not see any chance of the two rubbing shoulders even peripherally.  The appalling limitations both of the graded examination syllabus and the new music extremists has set up a barrier which is pretty near impenetrable.

So long as 21st century trainee composers deliberately make their music inaccessible by a conscious move away from conventionality (exemplified by graphic scores which require special skills to interpret) and the graded exams continue to train musicians as if there have been no developments since the 19th century, the future of music as a unifying art seems doomed.